Ryan Kelly doesn’t sound like a 23-year-old rookie center when asked about the Indianapolis Colts’ obvious issues on the offensive line.
He’s been around long enough to know the company line. His words are composed for a first-round draft choice who is an important part of the O-line solution as the Colts continue to try to address what has been a maddeningly frustrating shortcoming since quarterback Andrew Luck arrived in 2012.
“Obviously our No. 1 goal and priority is to keep him safe,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That’s our job. We get paid to block.”
Nobody was blameless in Saturday’s ugly 33-23 home preseason loss to Philadelphia as Luck was sacked three times and endured six hits in the first half. The NFL’s highest-paid player resembled an all-too-familiar human piñata — in the passer’s first three seasons nobody withstood more than the 352 hits he absorbed, then he missed nine games due to injuries last season. Saturday became so discouraging, head coach Chuck Pagano pulled Luck prematurely instead of subjecting the franchise cornerstone to any second-half punishment.
Kelly gave up a sack, but so too did left tackle Anthony Castonzo, the Colts’ best blocker. Kelly’s assignment got to Luck again, although that was the result of rookie right tackle Le’Raven Clark failing to preserve the pocket, which forced the quarterback to try to scramble inside.
Protecting Luck — a $140 million investment in July — has been a bottom line that Pagano, general manager Ryan Grigson and even owner Jim Irsay have reiterated for four years and counting. And Kelly, who until Saturday had received strong reviews for his NFL readiness, offered perspective that has been given before by those entrusted with providing that protection.
“You look back on film, everybody makes it out to be so much worse,” Kelly said. “When you’re playing really well, everybody looks at it so much better.
“(Defensive linemen) have to be right one time. We have to be right every single time. That’s the nature of the beast. That’s what we do. When all five guys are playing that way and you have a good game and you keep him safe, that’s the best feeling in the world.”
The Colts used half of their eight draft picks on offensive linemen four months ago, including Kelly with the 18th overall choice. Grigson has drafted nine blockers since he was hired in 2012. He’s also spent millions on several failed free agents; Gosder Cherilus was made the league’s highest-paid right tackle in 2013 but lasted just two seasons and was cut with three years remaining on a $35 million contract.
Making matters worse now is left guard Jack Mewhort suffered a right knee injury and could be sidelined for one month. Clark, a third-round selection, was pressed into a starting role because Joe Reitz is nursing a sore back.
“Like I told them, I am disappointed like they are because we are better than that,” Pagano said. “I know we can play better than that. Again, I’m not going to make any excuses, but we’ve got some guys out of there right now that have been in there. So from a continuity standpoint it makes a difference having five guys in there that have been in there day after day and week after week playing together. You start playing musical chairs again and it’s tough.”
Injuries and subpar performance forced the Colts to use 11 different O-line starting combinations last season, so musical chairs has been the undesirable norm. But this was supposed to be the season that the Colts had finally fixed the problem.
While Pagano assured he’s not concerned about Castonzo, that the left tackle will “play winning football,” the 73-game starter in five seasons got off to a slow start last year after signing a four-year, $43.8 million extension. When Castonzo wasn’t giving up sacks or pressures, he was being flagged for holding penalties in the first half of 2015. The presumption at the time was that he played hurt. Pagano said Tuesday that Castonzo didn’t practice due to a triceps strain.
“It’s always concerning every time he’s on the ground,” Castonzo said of Luck. “We want to limit the hits on him.”
Luck tried to sound optimistic Monday despite the sobering reality that his first-team offense failed to score a touchdown in three preseason quarters. The Colts starters managed just two field goals in those two games, both losses.
“I wouldn’t say concerned, disappointing but we’ll work on things and I know we’re going to score a lot of points with this offense,” Luck said. “We have playmakers and guys that can get the ball in the end zone and we’ll keep chipping away at practice and we’ll be alright.”
The three-time Pro Bowl selection conceded with a chuckle that the Eagles reminded him of what it’s like to be sore a day after a game.
“Yeah, I feel like I played a half of football,” Luck said. “A couple hits, yeah it feels good. I think it’s almost important to get hit a little in the preseason for your body to get used to what it’s like on a Monday after a game. I feel pretty good.”
What is likely the greater concern is how the line shuffles without Mewhort, a 30-game starter in two seasons. Third-year pro Jonotthan Harrison, a backup center, could shift to guard. Rookie Joe Haeg, a fifth-round selection who played tackle in college, got plenty of practice snaps at guard but is also ailing with an ankle injury. Pagano acknowledged both of those options, but was non-committal on which direction the Colts will go. It’s clear the Colts don’t have many other possibilities; former starting guard Hugh Thornton has been out for two weeks with an ankle injury and is on the roster bubble due to his continual ineffectiveness and inability to stay healthy.
The starters aren’t expected to play in Thursday’s preseason finale at Cincinnati, so this week constitutes additional time to rest and determine who the best five linemen can be for the Sept. 11 season opener against Detroit at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“It’s never ideal but we probably have this conversation three times a year, in the four years I’ve been here and into the fifth,” Luck said. “It’s part of football.”